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The Climate Politics Almanac: Virginia's 2021 Elections, Part II

A post-mortem of Virginia's statewide and key House of Delegates races.

Our previous post discussed the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race; below the Almanac considers the lieutenant governor, attorney general, and close House of Delegates races.

Lieutenant Governor: In a race featuring two candidates vying to become the first woman of color elected to this office, Republican Winsome Sears defeated Democratic Del. Hala Ayala. Sears was born in Jamaica and served one term in the House of Delegates from 2002-2004. Her signature accomplishment during that term was the passage of a bill banning cross-burning in Virginia, though her attitude toward racial justice measures seems to have shifted.

A Winsome Sears campaign poster.

Insisting that “We are not back in 1963” in terms of civil rights, Sears joined in Youngkin’s criticisms of “critical race theory” and helped lead an organization that sought to mobilize Black voters for Trump. She refused to say whether she was vaccinated in 2021, and made heavy use of photos of herself holding an assault rifle to signal her support for gun ownership.

Sears’ performance across Virginia’s different demographic constituencies was nearly identical to Youngkin’s, and the final vote tally between Sears and Ayala appeared to be slightly closer only because of an apparent drop-off of a few thousand voters. 

Jason Miyares successfully stumps on Tucker Carlson’s show.

Attorney General: Republican Jason Miyares won this race by a similar margin to Youngkin and Sears. A Cuban-American whose family fled the Castro government, Miyares appealed to the conservative base by decrying criminal justice reforms passed by the Democrats and calling for tougher enforcement against undocumented immigration.

As a member of the House of Delegates since 2016, Miyares opposed stronger gun laws, such as universal background checks. Still, Miyares’ former boss, former Congressman Scott Rigell, claims Virginians will be surprised by Miyares’ “pragmatic, center-right” streak, and the Washington Post seemed to point to Miyares’ gentle chiding of Trump’s social media activity as an example. Miyares has not said much about climate change, though he voted against legislation acknowledging climate change as a pressing challenge and establishing a clean energy plan, against a bill distributing pollution credits toward flood preparedness, and “present” on a resolution affirming climate science. He has given no indication of whether he will reinstate his Republican predecessor Ken Cuccinelli’s policy of persecuting climate scientists at Virginia’s research institutions.

Miyares’ victory ends a multi-decade streak of successful political campaigns for the incumbent, two-term Attorney General Mark Herring. Herring was seen widely as a possible successor to Governor Northam until he called for Northam’s resignation following the medical yearbook scandal, then confessed to hypocrisy, having worn blackface in college himself.

As Attorney General, Herring has generally been a solid liberal, refusing to uphold Virginia’s ban on marriage equality and defending Obamacare against attacks from Republican states in a 2020 US Supreme Court case. He has been pushed on monopoly issues, pledging to no longer accept contributions from Dominion Energy. And he has joined many other state AGs in going after Purdue Pharma and Facebook, though in neither case is he known to be one of the leaders most aggressively pursuing the charges of corporate abuse.

Though Ralph Northam’s affable demeanor eventually resuscitated his popularity and reputation among Virginia Democrats, Northam evidently maintained an ability to hold grudges. In the 2021 statewide primaries, Northam endorsed progressive challenger Jay Jones over Herring. Herring ultimately prevailed in the primary by double digits after a late donation from the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which Jones alleged was funneled from Dominion Energy. 

House of Delegates: Democrats currently hold a 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates, and Republicans needed to make a net gain of 6 seats to flip control of the chamber (a roughly average swing for legislative elections in Virginia). Republicans have flipped the chamber, winning mostly by reversing gains in suburban districts that trended toward Democrats during the Trump years, and effectively playing defense in a few districts surrounding Richmond. Though two races have not yet been called and are headed to a recount, it appears that Republicans will have a slim 52-48 majority in the next session. The following districts proved pivotal in enabling Republicans to take the majority, and will likely be contested races again in 2023:

  • HD-28—Tara Durant (R) defeated incumbent Del. Joshua Cole-D-Stafford, 51-48%: In 2019, Del. Joshua Cole won a 4-point victory in his second attempt at representing this district in the Fredericksburg and Stafford area. Biden won this district by a fairly comfortable 10.5-point margin, but Cole could not take the seat for granted, having lost his 2017 race here by only 73 votes. A climate hawk, Cole did not accept money from Dominion Energy and supported the Green New Deal Act for Virginia. Cole’s opponent Tara Durant claimed she was motivated to run for office after she encountered “rioters” in Fredericksburg last summer, and was “told that the mob’s actions were sanctioned by the city government, and that law enforcement had no authority to intervene to ensure their safety.”

  • HD-91—A.C. Cordoza is 94 votes ahead of incumbent Del. Martha Mugler-D-Hampton, 49-49%: Del. Martha Mugler is serving in her first term representing this district, which is centered in Hampton and hugs the coastline east of Newport News. A former Hampton School Board Member, Mugler won this open seat by about 2,000 votes in a district that Biden carried by nearly 10 points in 2020, but which Ralph Northam and Hillary Clinton previously won by slightly narrower margins. In 2020, Mugler was one of five Democrats to vote to defeat a bill to limit qualified immunity for police officers. She is fewer than 100 votes behind Air Force veteran A.C. Cordoza, and has not yet conceded.

  • HD-85—Karen Greenhalgh (R) is 127 votes ahead of Del. Alex Askew-D-Virginia Beach, 50-49%: Del. Alex Askew is in his first term representing this district, which covers portions of Virginia Beach. Although Biden carried this district by nearly 12 points, Askew’s 2019 victory was a much tighter 3-point victory. Askew’s opponent was Karen Greenhalgh, a “crisis pregnancy center” volunteer who claims that her experience as a small business owner instilled her with the importance of preserving Virginia’s status as a right to work state. Like many Republican candidates in the Chesapeake Bay region, Greenhalgh emphasizes the importance of preserving the region’s oyster population, which is threatened by climate change. Askew has not yet conceded.

  • HD-12—Jason Ballard (R) defeated incumbent Del. Chris Hurst-D-Radford, 55-44%: Del. Chris Hurst first won his seat from Republican Del. Joseph Yost in 2017, winning by about 2,000 votes for a roughly 10-point victory. Hurst, a local news journalist, was motivated to get into politics when his fiance was killed during a live broadcast, and he won his first campaign with support from groups like Everytown for Gun Safety. As a delegate, Hurst pushed for delays to construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and on his campaign website he emphasized efforts to “protect our land and water from outside industries and pollution.” Pearisburg Town Councilmember Jason Ballard was Hurst’s opponent in this southwestern Virginia district, which Biden carried over Trump 51-46%. On his campaign site, Ballard decried “misguided executive action” during the COVID-19 pandemic and “anti-2nd amendment” measures promoted by “far-left” politicians.

  • HD-83—Tim Anderson (R) defeated incumbent Del. Nancy Guy-D-Virginia Beach, 51-48%: A longtime Virginia Beach School Board member, Del. Nancy Guy is in her first term serving this district, which includes parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. In 2019, Guy defeated incumbent Republican Del. Chris Stolle by just 41 votes, although Biden carried this district the following year by over 15 points. Guy’s opponent was gun rights attorney Tim Anderson, who represented right-wing state Sen. Amanda Chase in a case arguing that the Virginia State Senate violated her free speech rights by censuring her for participating in the January 6 insurrection. 

  • HD-63—Kim Taylor (R) defeated incumbent Del. Lashrecse Aird-D-Petersburg, 50-48%: Though the DLCC did identify Aird as one of their targeted incumbents, Aird’s loss was one of the bigger upsets of the election. Biden carried this district, which has a 60% Black population, by about 10 points in 2020. Automotive shop owner Kim Taylor seemed to run a comparatively temperate campaign here against Aird, a 35-year old higher education employee and advocate and driving force behind criminal justice reform in recent years, was first elected to this seat in 2015 and hadn’t previously faced tough re-election challenges.

  • HD-75—Otto Wachsmann (R) defeated incumbent Del. Roz Tyler-D-Emporia, 52-47%: Del. Roz Tyler has served in this seat in Southside Virginia since 2006, and chaired the Education Committee. Although Tyler is an experienced legislator who previously served on the Sussex County board of supervisors, her district has trended away from Democrats in recent years. Hillary Clinton carried the district by 10 points, but Biden only carried it by 7. In 2019, Tyler was re-elected by a 51-49 margin. Her 2019 opponent, pharmacist Otto Wachsmann, ran against her again and won, decrying the “radical left” in Richmond. 

The legislative elections were not an across-the-board sweep for the Republicans. Targeted incumbent Democratic Delegates Kelly Convirs-Fowler (HD-21-Virginia Beach), Elizabeth Guzman (HD-31-Independent Hill), Schuyler Van Valkenberg (HD-72-Henrico County), and Rodney Willett (HD-73-Henrico County) were re-elected.

Democrats nearly offset incumbent losses by keeping races for Republican-held districts in Chesterfield County competitive, but the Republican candidates won the elections for HD-66 and HD-27.

Democrats will continue to control a 21-19 majority in the Virginia State Senate, which did not hold elections this year.

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